Since the 18th century
The idea that everyone should go to school is a relatively new one. In Wickford, as elsewhere, education was provided privately until the late nineteenth century.
According to the will of William Emerson (1772), not only was he an inn keeper and Parish Clerk, he also taught school in Wickford for 12 years. In 1807 William Potter, Curate for Downham and Wickford, completed a document for the Bishop of London which revealed that there was a Sunday School at Wickford for 25 pupils and a day school for 23, both taught by the same person.
In the 1851 census there are about seventy ‘Scholars’ listed, most aged between 5 and 14. Mrs Mary Champion and her husband Richard ran a private preparatory school from a detached house in the High Street, until the 1870s. Their daughter, Sarah, ran a private day school around the turn of the century.
In 1861 a National School was built at the site of the present Church of England School in the Southend Road. The school was built by John Carter, carpenter, and George Carter, bricklayer, to the measurements of Mr Moss. The school cost £288 14s 11d to build. The main contributors to the cost were the Reverends Berens, De Tessier, Purvis and Lukin and their friends. Mrs Brewitt, of Bridge House Farm, David Archer, Thomas Bell and Henry Stone also contributed as did many other local people. The school was large enough for 75 pupils. Miss Eliza Flack, who had previously run her own school in the High Street in a room adjacent to John Salmon’s grocers shop near to Wickford bridge, was the first teacher. In 1886, when Mrs Catherine Douglas was mistress, only 50 pupils attended, on average, though in 1894 a classroom was added.
We know little about the history of the school until 1904 because the early log books have been lost. In 1906 Wickford National School No 7034 became Wickford Church of England School No 407. A new fence was placed around the playground in that year. The rector loaned pictures for the walls. Another new classroom was added in 1907 at a cost of £246. The head teacher, John Henry Gornall, wrote that “The dressing porches are most obviously inadequate. The boys porch is not half the size of the old one”. The school was used as a meeting place for public talks, the Navy League and evening cinematograph entertainments. In January 1908 there were 156 pupils on roll.
Attendance at school could be erratic. Children coming from Runwell or Nevendon could sometimes be cut off by winter floods for at least a few days. In summer pea picking, blackberry picking or day trips to Southend could cause absences. Outbreaks of measles, whooping cough or ringworm could keep children away or have them sent home.
January 10th, 1908, was an important day for the Wickford School. It all but burnt down. Mr Percy Neville was working in his garden and noticed smoke coming from the thatched roof. He raised the alarm and the Headmaster noticed the excitement in the street. He went outside and saw that the roof was ablaze. The children were led outside and sent home. The registers were removed to place of safety. Workers from a nearby building site came to help remove furniture. Mrs Gornall, who was ill in bed at the time, was carried to a neighbour’s house.
A telegram was sent to the fire brigade at Chelmsford – “School’s on fire, come at once: Wickford”. Unfortunately it had no signature so it was not clear who would pay so the brigade decided not to turn out. The Billericay Fire Brigade arrived at 10.45. There is a story that a man on a bicycle preceded the horse drawn manual engine for part of the journey to clear the way. At Crays Hill children came from a nearby school to help push the engine up the hill. On hearing that the engine was going to Wickford School they withdrew their help and went back to class. By the time the brigade arrived there was nothing left but the brick walls and some window frames.
It is not clear how the fire started. One suggestion is that children had cleaned and filled some oil lamps for lighting, put oily rags on the fire from which sparks leapt to the thatched roof. There are pictures of the school afire and after rebuilding here.
School had only just reopened after a measles epidemic. Classes resumed on February 3rd 1909, in a cheerful well lit room lent by Mr Ruffhead, on the corner of Jersey Gardens and Station Avenue. The infants and lower juniors found it difficult to get down to work because they had lost most of their equipment in the fire. The school was rebuilt on its original site at an eventual cost of £900. There was room for 160 children. The new school building was officially opened on 29th September 1909.
There were other changes in the school. Mr and Mrs Gornall were asked to leave by the school managers as a result of a dispute over the needlework accounts. The Rev Dormer Pierce also resigned as Chairman of the Managers in 1908 when he became Vicar of Southend. A problem that plagued the school for a number of years was the state of the “offices” (i.e. the toilets). An inspector wrote that “Care should be taken to keep the offices tidy and to prevent the children from scribbling in them”. The school was connected to the main sewer by 1910.
The school was still overcrowded. Teachers were expected to manage classes of 50 or more. In 1913 a classroom built for 40 was housing 62, with children sitting three to a desk. Lessons included drill, drawing and modelling, reading, arithmetic, needlework, sculpture and hygiene. Prizes were awarded for work, “kindness” and attendance. Mrs Beeton’s Cookery Book was a popular prize. The parish donated one hundred books for a school library. The winning of a scholarship to Brentwood Grammar School gained the pupils twenty minutes extra playtime. Other events that the school engaged in included trips to Crystal Palace and London. Collections were made for waifs and strays and for victims of the Titanic disaster, dolls were made for the poor of the East End and the flag was lowered in memory of Captain Scott. Clergymen would visit to test pupils on their knowledge of the scriptures. Members of the Band of Hope would visit to tell pupils about the evils of alcohol.
The New Council School was opened in Market Road on September 14th, 1914. It was built for 130 scholars, enrolled 105 pupils upon its opening and was declared full on November 11th, with 147 pupils. There were four staff, including Mr J. C. Davey and his wife. It was also catering for pupils from the small schools at Runwell and Nevendon, which were closed. The Church School’s numbers fell from 192 to 132 but the Council School still had to contend with the attractions of pea and blackberry picking and the inconvenience of heavy snow or floods, which could close either school. On January 29th 1918 many pupils absented themselves from the Church School to inspect a fallen enemy aircraft. The buildings are still in use as Wickford Infants School. The new school, Number 406a, had four staff.
In 1919 Archibald Bullock became the new head of the Church School. He found the school untidy, with cobwebs around the rooms and old kettles and pans lying about. Work standards were “shocking”, “disgraceful” or “very bad”. Children were said to be unruly and disobedient. Inspectors found conditions, including absenteeism, at the Council School to be similar. The schools suffered various problems with their fabric and were often too cold in winter and too hot and stuffy in summer. Stoves smoked, ceilings collapsed and toilets got blocked.
The attendant at the Church School refused to clean the toilets because his 3/6 monthly pay rise had not come through. The neighbours complained about the smell. The Public Health Authority condemned the sanitary arrangements at the school which led to it being taken over by Essex Education Authority in 1920. Mrs Mathewman, one of the neighbours, provided poor children with hot soup at mid-day. The Women’s Institute provided soup at the Council School for a halfpenny a portion.
In 1929 Henry Kitson, Head of the Council School after 1927, commented that he had taken in over 400 hundred pupils in the previous two years. “The migratory character of the population makes it very difficult to follow a definite scheme of instruction”. In 1933 the Public Hall in Elm Road was used as a classroom because of continued overcrowding. On December 8th 1933 there were officially 492 children enrolled but only 395 in the school. The Head teacher was not happy with the situation.
In 1937 Wickford County Secondary School opened opposite the Council School, which became the Junior School. It had 10 classrooms and an assembly hall built from local brick at a cost of £14,985. Children moved in in January but the official opening took place on September 28th, 1937. The head teacher was Mr F. W. Rose. Since 1959 the buildings have been used as Wickford Junior School.
In the 1930s and 1940s there were two private schools in the town. A Miss Mason ran a small infants school at No 21 Swan Lane. A Miss Hutchinson ran St George’s School behind Sansom’s in the High Street for 5-14 year olds in the 1940s and 50s. See here for more information.
During the Second World War lessons would sometimes be interrupted by air raids and children and teachers would have to make for the air raid shelters. If there were too many to fit in the junior or infant shelters they would use those in the senior school. Bob Croot’s memories of the Market Road schools can be found here .
Along the Southend Road, into the 1970s, was the Mala School of Dance, run by Margaret Upton.
The number of schools in the town has multiplied since the Second World War. In 1959 Beauchamps School opened as a purpose built secondary school for 11-16 year olds. Other schools to open are Hilltop Junior School (1967), Castledon Special School (1969), Barn Hall Primary School (1970) and Hilltop Infants School (1972). Bromfords Comprehensive School opened in (1973), followed by North Crescent Primary School (1975). Grange Junior School (1969) and Grange Infants School (1973) became Grange Primary School in 1998. Oakfield Primary School opened in 2000 and Abacus Primary School in 2002. There have also been a number of nurseries and pre-schools established in recent years.